USIP’s Mike Lekson and Bruce MacDonald, both former U.S. arms control officials give their take on the significance of North Korea’s latest move.

North Korea Nuclear Test Shows Device Advances, Challenges China’s Influence

USIP’s Mike Lekson and Bruce MacDonald weigh in on North Korea’s third nuclear test:

“As we anticipated, North Korea is developing both a more powerful and apparently a more deliverable weapons system, which combined with its ballistic missile program, will not only pose a threat to its neighbors but could ultimately threaten the United States,” said Lekson, an arms control expert and former State Department official.

Lekson, director of gaming in USIP’s Academy of International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, continued: “The attitude taken by China will be extremely important, especially in the United Nations Security Council. While no country can compel the North Korean government to behave in a responsible fashion, China has the most direct influence on the Kim family regime. China has shown much greater patience than the rest of the world community, and its reward has been defiance from Pyongyang.”

“Past precedent is not a perfect guide to future performance, but the history of dealing with this issue over the years suggests that it will be very difficult to reach any kind of deal with North Korea, and highly unlikely that any such agreement would be implemented in good faith. And we can be sure that Tehran and Pyongyang will both be watching their respective situations closely, so that any concession offered to one, however slight, will be demanded by the other,” Lekson noted.

Regarding what the test suggests about the North’s technical capacity, MacDonald, who helped negotiate the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, explained, “The reported yield suggests that North Korea is getting better in its nuclear weapons technology but still has a ways to go. If their statement on the weapon tested being lighter can be believed, their estimated bomb yield of 6,000-7,000 tons equivalent of TNT is an improvement over their earlier tests, but well below what more experienced nuclear powers achieve. They appear to be pushing for a weapon that is light enough to be capable of delivery by ballistic missile to intercontinental ranges (i.e., to the United States), and this test would appear to be one more step in that direction.”

“The focus now falls on China more than ever, given North Korea's great economic dependence on them. China's statements in response to this test have been much more critical than in the past, but it remains to be seen what concrete economic or other steps, if any, China decides to take. China is unhappy with the test, but also fears a collapse of the North Korean regime if pushed too hard economically, and the resulting flood of Korean refugees into northeastern China such a collapse might well produce,” said MacDonald, a former U.S. official in the State Department and the White House who now serves as the senior director of USIP’s arms control and nonproliferation program.

This latest development amplifies such concern -- expressed in a recent “Sleeper Risks" article -- that the entire nonproliferation regime is eroding, with extremely serious potential consequences for international security.

How do you think the international community should respond to North Korea’s latest test?

Liz Harper is senior editor at USIP. 

Related Publications

What Does the Singapore Summit Mean for South Korea, China and Japan?

What Does the Singapore Summit Mean for South Korea, China and Japan?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

By: Frank Aum; Jennifer Staats ; Ambassador Joseph Yun

The June 12 summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a watershed moment in relations between Washington and Pyongyang. But, the more immediate and profound impact will be felt in East Asia, where North Korea’s nuclear program has threatened regional stability and security. While South Korea, China and Japan have different—sometimes starkly so—interests and positions vis-à-vis North Korea, all three of the Asian powers will be important players in efforts to implement the pledges made in Singapore. USIP’s Ambassador Joseph Yun, Jennifer Staats and Frank Aum discuss the implications for Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

North Korea and China: The Endgame Behind the Headlines

North Korea and China: The Endgame Behind the Headlines

Friday, April 20, 2018

By: Fred Strasser

In the fast-moving diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear program, the long-term interests of the country’s powerful neighbor China don’t make headlines. Yet behind China’s tactical moves such as President Xi Jinping’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month lie strategic questions about what China—vital to any resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue—envisions as a satisfactory end state for the Korean Peninsula.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

View All Publications